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Marcus Panton taxandtreasuryrecruitment, taxrecruitment...

Lessons Through Lockdown

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Nearly six months ago I was on a skiing holiday in St Anton, having a lovely time with family and friends, enjoying everything this Austrian ski resort had to offer. For those who love a bit of après-ski, there is nowhere in the World quite like St Anton!

In the weeks leading up to my trip, many people felt coronavirus was simply going to disappear with the arrival of warm spring weather and leaving for the airport things seemed pretty normal. Heathrow was packed full of people excited to be getting on a plane, all the shops, bars and restaurants were open and full, and no one was wearing a face mask. Three hours after take off we were checking into our hotel (a short journey; another reason to like St Anton), and that feeling couldn’t have been more different.

Austria was quickly becoming the European epicenter of coronavirus and over the coming days we looked on as St Anton fell apart around us. Trump announced quarantine for anyone flying to the US from Europe and immediately guests scrambled to book early flights home. At breakfast we listened as hotel reception fielded calls from guests calling to cancel their bookings.

Two days in and sixty ski instructors were told to pack up and go home, bars and restaurants started closing and we spoke with many resort employees fearful that their job was next in the firing line...for most of them it was! Within a matter of days we too were in a taxi heading back to the airport, three days earlier than planned. In the taxi a friend messaged me to tell me St Anton had been closed and was officially in lockdown.

In the airport lounge I called Craig and we agreed I should join our weekly team meeting to talk about what I'd just experienced as we now knew the UK was only days away from going into lockdown. St Anton isn't London, but it was clear the same was about to happen here, so we discussed what Lockdown might mean for our clients, our candidates and for everyone at ARRC. Craig had already actioned the one thing every company has but hopes it never needs, our Business Continuity Plan and a few days later the Government put the country into lockdown and we haven’t been back to the office since!

Leading up to that point the business was flying! We were growing at +30% year on year and had started our sixth year with a record January, a record February and a pipeline for March that meant we were going to smash all previous quarterly bests. Everything we had worked towards was coming together and it was gearing up to be an amazing year and importantly for us, our team were all reaping the rewards of all the training and hard work. Now the newspaper headlines tell us that the UK has fallen into it's worst ever recession after a record 20.4 per cent plunge in GDP.

Like everyone we've have to adapt to a new way of working and we've had to do it in one of the most challenging markets most of us have ever lived through. July figures recorded a rise in new vacancies of +50 per cent on the previous month, but that's still nearly half a million fewer vacancies than at the start of the crisis.

As profession specialist recruiters we have the most diverse client base possible for such a young company, so unlike many recruitment companies we're not reliant on any one industry sector, or beholden to one or two clients for the majority of our sales. Even though vacancy numbers are significantly down our risk is so widely spread we've continued to win new business and make placements all throughout lockdown.

In the past three months our clients have been asking to engage us on either an exclusive or retained basis (which means we don't need to work on as many roles to make as many placements). They are coming to us wanting to work in this way (rather than us pitching for it) and it begs the question, 'why'? In part it's because many companies are making sensitive people changes and want to keep control of the message going out to market. To highlight the point, in some cases we've signed NDA's with clients and candidates to avoid word getting out that a company is recruiting. In other cases it is because the HR/recruitment teams don't have time to engage with lots of recruiters, they know we will do a good job and they just want to get the best service possible without the hassle of being chased by everyone on their preferred supplier list (psl).

We've also seen a significant change in the average level of hire. Pre crises there was consistent demand for people at the 55k to 65k salary levels, in the past four months 90% of the roles we've been engaged on have been at Senior Manager and Head of Department levels and these roles pay circa 50% to 100% more than this.

We've won lots of new business. Over 50% of the vacancies we've been asked to fill since the start of lockdown are with new clients. As a growing company we've been winning new clients ever month for the past 6 years so this is not a new to us. What's interesting is how much we're winning now, given all that's going on. I would opine it is a reflection of the ongoing trend towards using specialists and our clients clearly valuing working with profession specialist recruiters for Audit & Risk. However, this also reflects a trend for younger, high growth companies (think tech/on-line businesses), who haven't previously had audit, risk and controls functions in place wanting to build strong corporate governance functions before they get to big.

Lockdown and coronavirus sent most companies into a bit of a tailspin and everyone had to adapt accordingly. Chaos leads to change, change creates jobs and we've definitely seen new roles identified and created in audit & risk. Companies may be hiring fewer people, but the roles they are trying to fill have been scrutinized by every layer of management to a level not seen since the financial collapse of 2008, so by the time we get briefed, all our clients want to do is speed through the process and get someone on board.

Recruitment companies have been hit hard by this crisis, as have we, and we’re very aware how many of our competitors have been either asked to work part-time, put on furlough or made redundant. We've had to make our share of difficult decisions, decisions that impact human lives and I feel for anyone who's job/who's career has been negatively impacted by this. The upshot of all this is a noticeable absence of competition and, without wanting to sound mercenary, we've definitely benefited from this.

Running a business through a pandemic is a challenge and it's good to be able to reflect on the lessons we've learned over the past five months or so. It's especially good to see so much good work being done across the business in such difficult times. Craig and I recognize that we have a large, diverse and loyal client base who will come to us when their hiring needs return and with this as our backbone, we very much see this period of uncertainty and change is an opportunity.

Since lockdown began we've spent time and resources investing in further diversifying the business and as well as diversifying within our existing Audit & Risk brand, we've also soft-launched a new brand called the Tax & Treasury Recruitment Company (TTRC), something we've always planned to do. TTRC is another profession specialist recruitment business and in so many ways it's a carbon copy of our existing business model, so we know exactly how to make it a success. The experience of managing ARRC through this crisis gives us even more confidence in doing this.

Finally my thoughts are with anyone who has lost someone to this horrid virus. It's clearly going to be a part of our lives for a long time and we must all play our part in doing everything we can to prevent it's spread. I am close to many vulnerable people who will no doubt have to be very careful to avoid coronavirus for the rest of their lives.